My progress has been slow this summer, mostly because of the Theroux, but I'm moving forward again at a decent pace.
I've been trying to read location-specific books before and during my travels, and so because I was heading to Beijing in early September, I went to the English language bookstore in Shanghai and asked for the best books set in the city. They gave me a couple of options, but after the meditative slow ride of the Railway Bazaar and the strange history lessons from the Three Body Problem, I wanted something: not too dry, not too serious.
Midnight in Peking fit the bill, as a fictionalized rendition of a true-crime, a murder of a British girl, that happened in Peking in 1937. As it so happens, it was surprisingly relevant to the trip as well. We happened to travel during the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War; the war's major fighting began in the year 1937. There was to be a military parade. There was to be less traffic, less pollution, less locals. An ideal time to travel, really.
The book does a good job of weaving in historical context throughout the book – setting up the oncoming Japanese threat and the lack of faith Beijingers both in the city and in the city's legation quarter have in the new Kuomintang leadership. The book sets up the place and time well – small time warlords, red light districts, foreigners living in isolation as well as the less well-heeled foreign immigrants coming down from Russia. I had a lot of questions about the history, most of which I directed at HD, my human history wiki. There are a lot of references thrown about. For example, I have to be honest, I didn't know much about Mao's long retreat to the caves of Yan'an. During our trip, I got an entire history lesson about the time before and during the war. Sometimes history feels so abstract; it's great to find an interest in it through a compelling story.
The book was well written, both informative and moving and fun. But in the end, I was left feeling a little bit sad. Midnight in Peking left me with the sad feeling that so many stories (lives, really) go down in history unrecorded and unknown, overshadowed by large movements, war, the notorious and famous. In the end, the case of this girl's murder – of Pamela Werner's murder – was never officially solved. The British government never deemed the case important enough to reopen. Paul French rifled through the archived case files to put together the book. It was a great book. It deserved to be written. But if a case like hers exists, how many more are out there as well? Her life mattered; but wasn't it just a drop in the bucket of life, especially compared to the bloodshed of the war to come? The book makes you feel the extremes of human existence: the value and tragedy of the smallest life, and at the same time that life's insignificance in the shadow of a huge historical event, one celebrated still seventy years later.
French's success is in creating this tension, in that I stood at our hotel room window looking down on the wide boulevard where costumed policemen and soldiers would soon be marching in unison in a few days' time. All I could think of was Pamela.